Book Review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The Underground RailroadThe Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A nonlinear narrative composed of straightforward, at times lyrical, writing, The Underground Railroad tells the story of Cora, a slave girl whose escape of the plantation leads to conflict and loss and love and meditations on what it means to be free. Whitehead’s writing is solid, but it took me a while to get into The Underground Railroad due to the conflict evoked in my brain by his portrayal of the railroad as an actual railroad running underground. Other than that detail, the story is richly textured with historical accuracies, many of which stirred up anger in myself toward the brutal history of this country and the so-called peculiar institution. I haven’t read much historical fiction since upper elementary and middle school, when I was basically obsessed with Ann Rinaldi’s work, so it was interesting to jump back into the genre as an adult reading historical fiction written for adults. This work was eye-opening in a way that makes me want to go back and relearn history, which isn’t a bad idea considering the times we’re living in. Told in third person with sections devoted to different characters, but the core of the story being Cora’s journey out of slavery and into freedom, The Underground Railroad takes you along for the journey. I recommend climbing aboard.

View all my reviews

You may have noticed almost all of my reviews have 4 or 5 stars. That’s because I don’t finish books I don’t like. Life’s too short to read bad books. I only review the good ones.

Book Review: The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer

The Shock of the FallThe Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A stream-of-consciousness narrative tackling dual themes of mental illness (schizophrenia, in particular) and grief, “The Shock of the Fall” follows 19-year-old Matthew Homes as he seeks to write his story, partly on his treatment program’s computer and partly on the typewriter his grandmother gave him. He’s grappling with the death of his older brother a decade earlier — a tragedy he’s always blamed himself for. His brother had Down’s Syndrome. Matthew felt (and was often held by his parents as) responsible for Simon. Now, he’s gone. Actually, he’s been gone since a nighttime fall (hence, the book’s title).

This book moves quickly in chapters of varying lengths, moving back and forth in the time frame. It takes a little while to adjust to the non-linear storytelling style, but the style keeps you on your toes in a way that makes the book more intriguing. You’re in Matthew’s head, which is a fascinating, sometimes confusing, sometimes frightening place to be. And even though it’s a book about mental health that doesn’t try to tie things up in a pretty bow, the ending is satisfying, not hopeless. I, personally, felt better for having read it.

View all my reviews

Good Reads = crazy true stories + great writing

Some of my favorite longform stories from the last few months.

The Girl Detectives by Marin Cogan, Topic
A student club at the University of Pittsburgh takes on unsolved, real world mysteries — and just happens to be dominated by women.

Escaping Kakuma by Louis Bien, SB Nation
I hadn’t read an SB Nation feature in a while, so I sought this one out. It’s an up-close account of soccer in a refugee camp where the sport seems like the most likely route to a better life.

The teenage whaler’s tale by Julia O’Malley, High Country News
When a celebratory post following an Alaskan teen’s successful whale hunt goes viral, it draws much worse than criticism. This story shows the other side: life in a remote Alaskan village, the necessity of the hunt, and a glimpse of the hunter as a young man trying to find his way in the world.

What Goes Up: The daredevil, his helicopter, the risk of flying too high, and the birth of modern news by Jack Hitt, Epic
Epic is one of those publications that you can always count on to deliver well-written, designed, and produced stories that provide you, the reader, with a textured experience you’re unlikely to forget. This story might by my favorite on this list. There are layers, lots of moving people, compelling characters, and broader questions that left me pondering. Read it.

My Family’s Slave by Alex Tizon, The Atlantic
This is a must-read for 2017 (and had it been published earlier, it should have been required for 2016). The author, Alex Tizon, opens up about the woman his family kept as a slave since before he was born. There’s a complexity in this story that you don’t often find in pieces involving such black-and-white issues. Tizon draws out the gray areas in this particular case, without white-washing the wrong or making excuses for his family. Beautifully done.

The Improbable Life of Paula Zoe Helfrich by Julia Cooke, The Atavist
I’ve never been disappointed by an Atavist story (that’s why I bought their book for my birthday last year — highly recommend), and this one stuck to suit. Paula Zoe Helfrich is not a woman who can be reduced to a few lines or words. What’s true about her? What’s not? This story tries to figure those things out.

Book Review: Fighting for Life by S. Josephine Baker

Fighting for LifeFighting for Life by S. Josephine Baker

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

First of all, Sara Josephine Baker lived an incredible life. Second of all, she has a totally relatable way of sharing her story.

Originally published in 1939, this autobiography tells firsthand the story of a woman doctor (at a time when that brought strange looks) who engineered the saving of thousands of infant lives in New York City slums at the turn of the century and became the first woman to earn a Doctor of Public Health through the program at NYU (because, when she was asked to lecture in the program that only accepted men, she refused to do so unless she could also enroll for the degree, opening the door for other women to enroll as well).

I originally read an excerpted version of her memoir (in Written by Herself: Autobiographies of American Women <– highly recommend). I enjoyed the excerpted version so much, that I almost immediately ordered her book.

The beginning takes a little while to get into, but soon enough, you’re following her to New York as she enrolls in medical school and later sets up her own practice with a fellow woman doctor and then gets involved with preventive public health and on and on it goes, as she steps into different roles and situations and seeks to fill the gaps she finds.

Baker has a no-nonsense style to her writing. Don’t come to this book seeking lyrical prose or a literary masterpiece. Her writing flows, as if she’s sitting and talking with you, recounting her life. I learned a ton — about her, her work, and the world as it was back then (think, women’s suffrage, “little mothers,” Soviet Russia — oh, and baby care).

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and recommend it to anyone who enjoys learning, values the work of women in the world, and is curious about history.

View all my reviews

Book review: Before the Fall by Noah Hawley

Before the FallBefore the Fall by Noah Hawley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A private plane crashes in the middle of a short flight from Martha’s Vineyard to New York City. Before the Fall tells the stories of the characters involved: the painter who survived, swimming the four-year-old child to safety; the flight attendant and the copilot; the media magnate and his political friend; the wife and mother, now survived by one child and a sister married to a struggling writer. This is a story told in scenes and glimpses. Hawley cuts back and forth through time and space, from character to character, weaving the complexity that, though fiction, is convincing enough that it could be reality. Why do accidents happen? Or do they? Is there truly such a thing as an accident? Was this plane crash intentional on some earthly or cosmic level?

I highly recommend this book. Hawley’s prose is textured with detail that paints vivid portraits of people and events without weighing down the story. Chapters vary in length, but all of them move quickly, and you’re left wondering, “What if …?” This was a book I had to discipline myself with late at night, forcing myself to stop and go to bed even though I could have kept reading and reading. I’m about to track down more books by Noah Hawley because one was definitely not enough.

View all my reviews

Good reads: Magazine pieces you shouldn’t miss

Every month, week, day, I’m adding more stories to my to-read list. Here are a few favorites from the past few months:

What Bullets Do to Bodies by Jason Fagone, Highline
An up-close portrait of the work of Dr. Amy Goldberg, a trauma surgeon in North Philly who’s seen more bullet wounds in the past 30 years than one person should see in a lifetime.

“Sometimes You Have to Build a Wall Around Your Heart” by Robert Sanchez, 5280
Denver is no better off than the rest of the country in terms of today’s opioid epidemic. 5280 staff writer Robert Sanchez introduces readers to those on the front lines trying to do something about it and others suffering from addiction. Key characters: Colorado state Representative Brittany Pettersen and her mother, a heroin addict.

In the Shadow of a Fairy Tale: On becoming a stepmother by Leslie Jamison, The New York Times Magazine
A thoughtful consideration of our cultural narrative about stepmothers, from a stepmother fighting desperately hard to be a good one. Beautiful writing. Thought-provoking essay.

The Mysterious Death of a Muslim Marine Recruit by Alex French, Esquire
Raheel Siddiqui joined the Marines to pursue better life for his family. Not even two weeks into basic training, he died from a fall that no one who knew him believes was suicide.

How Chobani’s Hamdi Ulukaya is Winning America’s Culture War by Rob Brunner, Fast Company
The story of Chobani’s founder, an immigrant entrepreneur whose company is making positive impact in the United States and around the world. (Full disclosure: I’m biased toward anything involving Chobani because it’s brought economic growth to Upstate New York, where I grew up.)

How the World’s Heaviest Man Lost It All by Justin Heckert, GQ
The title explains it. The writing makes it real. Read the story.

Can We “Cure” the Men Who Pay for Sex? by Brooke Jarvis, GQ
In King County, Washington, a state-funded program seeks to rehabilitate men, all based on the premise that the men’s twisted ideas of sex prevent them from having healthy romantic relationships with women.

How the National Park Service is failing women by Lindsey Gilpin, High Country News
An investigative account of sexism and misogyny at varying levels within the National Park service.

Dr. Death by Matt Goodman, D Magazine
The terrifying true story of a doctor whose years of malpractice took far too long to catch up with him. Crazy story.

Everyone Leaves Behind a Name: True Stories by Michael Brick

This past spring, I ordered a copy of Everyone Leaves Behind a Name after hearing about the book and its author, Michael Brick, on Gangrey: The Podcast. I frequently listen to podcasts like Gangrey, which interviews working narrative journalists, but this episode was different because instead of interviewing the headlining writer, all 51 minutes were a conversation about Brick between three other journalists.

Brick died of colon cancer in February. The Gangrey episode was done in his memory. Everyone Leaves Behind a Name is a collection of his work from places like The Dallas Morning NewsThe New York Times, and Harper’s. Proceeds from selling the book benefit Brick’s family.

A collection of true stories

brickAnthology became my favorite word when I learned it in grade school. The idea of a bunch of stories mashed together into one book so you could easily carry a bunch of quick reads got me excited the way some kids get about candy. Anthologies are now some of my favorite things.

Everyone Leaves Behind a Name stands apart from many anthologies because . . .

– it’s a collection of true stories
– many of which were written for daily newspapers and
– could have been super dry, boring news writing, but
– actually breathe life into their subjects and
– make the mundane and everyday somehow profound.

Brick’s heart aspiration was to write music and his sentences often feel more like lyrics than prose. I had to read slowly to make sure I actually comprehended his work, because the words would pick me up and go and I’d finish a piece dazzled but unaware what the story was actually about (the irony: wordlover comprehension problems).

The pieces vary in length, setting, and subject matter, but all of them reach past the surface-level events and personalities into bigger questions about life and what it means to be human on this crazy spinning ball. The writing is dense with meaning, so a coherent brain is necessary for full comprehension. If your brain is like that right before bed, go ahead and curl up with it. I quickly learned I needed to read it during daylight with as little distractions as possible. Otherwise, my attempts to read were just disrespectful Brick’s work.

Brick’s writing is distinct from anything else I’ve ever read. A lot of narrative nonfiction goes in and out of narration for short bits of reflection, but Brick’s wove reflection into everything. His keen observation, not only of sensory action but of profound contradictions and character complexity, was present in every paragraph and sentence. It made me wonder if I’m as observant as I think I am. Would I pick up on those things or would I be too busy with my head down taking notes?

If you’re a writer trying to find your way in the written world, Everyone Leaves Behind a Name should be added to your reading list. Here is a man who stepped into reporting completely green, learned the trade, and put his own beautiful spin on writing for a beat. As an anthology, the book doesn’t require a commitment. You can pick it up for a few minutes, put it down for a few weeks or months, come back to it and not have to catch yourself up. It’s not an easy read — like I said, dense with meaning — but it’s rich and interesting.

(My favorite piece is “The Big Race”, one of the longer works which starts on page 123.)